First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo, Japan

First Timer's Guide to Tokyo: Cherry Blossom Festival
Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

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So, it’s your first time in Tokyo, Japan, huh? Get ready for a sensory overload–the bright lights, millions of people packed into tight spaces, and the high-rise building that seem to touch the sky. When I first came to Tokyo, I was a study abroad student at a well-known university in the heart of Tokyo, so Tokyo was a magical land to me. As I got off the plane, the onslaught on Japanese was as if my ears had finally popped from the change in air pressure right there.

Is Tokyo Safe?

Perhaps this is a question that is sticking out in your mind, but rest assured because Tokyo, and Japan in general, is safe for foreign travelers and solo travelers of any sex or persuasion. While I would warn against being un-alert/carefree in the common gangster or yakuza territories such as Kabukicho (within Shinjuku) or many of the yakuza-owned clubs at night, you will be and probably feel completely safe.

Be sure to keep your passport on you at all times in case of emergency, or in case you are stopped by police officers. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics has made law enforcement more careful, and this will continue as Japan gets closer to the actual event. 

If you are ever in an emergency, call 119 for the police or fire rescue, and 110 for medical services. If you are unable to use a phone, don’t be afraid to ask Japanese people for help, go to a convenience store and ask a clerk, or find your nearest police box (交番, kōban) as there’s one on almost every corner!

Best Time

Tokyo is a beautiful city packed not only with tall buildings and trendy cafes, but also with people. A lot of people. And, the crowd of people gets bigger depending on the season.

The best time to visit Tokyo is between February and March and September to late November.

Between February and March, it’s cold and you’ll probably run into some snow, but a snowy Tokyo also has its own magical charm. Plus, most tourists won’t want to go on vacation during this time. You can also take advantage of the great places outside of Tokyo that are best seen in the winter to round out your trip.

Between September and late November, the days are cooling down and getting shorter, and Japan enters into its koyo (こうよう) or autumn leaf viewing season.

If you visit between April and August, you will hit the Cherry Blossom rush, Golden Week season (when most Asian countries have convenient gone on holiday), and the hottest and most humid summer you might have ever experienced. However, if you don’t mind the heat or crowds, then the best time to go for optimal weather and sunny-blue skies is from around mid-April to September.

Getting Around

When you first land into Narita Airport (or even Haneda Airport, for that matter), it’s a beast. Past customs and the doors open to a flurry of languages, movement, and confusion. Narita Airport’s arrivals lobby is a long rectangle of bus and car rental counters, restaurants or cafes, and people going all over the place. But, don’t fret! There are three easy to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station and two easy ways to get from Haneda Airport.

Narita Airport to Tokyo Station

From Narita Airport, you can take a bullet train, a local train, a bus, a taxi, or even rent a car. If leaving Narita Airport by train, you can take the Narita Express (NEX) one way for ¥3,000. It takes about 60 minutes to get from the Airport to Tokyo Station and you can use a JR Pass to take the train for free. You can also take the NEX train for a round trip to Tokyo Station for ¥4,070. This is the best option if you are leaving out of Narita Airport at the end of your trip. Next is the Keisei Skyliner. At ¥2,680 for a one-way 50-minute trip with one transfer, it is not only cheaper than taking the NEX, but it is also shorter by 10 minutes. If you prefer an even cheaper way, you can take the JR Sobu Line to Tokyo Station for ¥1,340. It takes about 90 minutes. The Keisei Limited Express is slightly cheaper than the local train at ¥1,210 one-way for 90 minutes with only 1 transfer.

If you decide to take a bus, you can take a limousine or shuttle bus from the airport for ¥2,800. It takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes, but the time varies depending on traffic into the city. Perhaps the cheapest way out of all the above options is the discount bus from the airport at only ¥1,000 for a 90-minute ride into Tokyo. If you are coming into Narita Airport at a particularly rush-hour time, you may have to wait in a fairly long line, but you can buy the ticket at the bus ticket counter, or you can go straight to the bus stop and buy a ticket while you wait in the line. The downside to buying a ticket while waiting in line is that those who already bought a ticket at the ticket counter are chosen first to get on the bus. 

One way I do not recommend is by taxi from the airport to Tokyo Station. Narita Airport is located in Chiba Prefecture, which is the prefecture next to Tokyo Prefecture. It is not located in Tokyo Prefecture, so it is quite far away from Tokyo City. If you take a taxi from the airport, you will pay ¥20,000 or more for a 60+ minute ride into Tokyo.

Haneda Airport to Tokyo Station

Located in Tokyo Prefecture, Haneda Airport is the closest to Tokyo central and the easiest to get to and from. From the airport, you can take the local train, a shuttle bus, or a taxi to get to central Tokyo or Tokyo Station. The best ways are by the Tokyo Monorail and the Keikyu Railways Airport Line. The Tokyo Monorail from Haneda is ¥660 and takes under 35 minutes with one transfer to the Yamanote Line. The Keikyu Railways Airport Line train takes about 45 minutes with 1 transfer to the Keihin-Tōhoku Line for ¥470

The next way to get from Haneda Airport to central Tokyo is by limousine or shuttle bus. From Haneda Airport, you can take a bus to Tokyo Station for ¥950 and ¥1,900 for an early morning or late night service. 

Lastly, and probably the most expensive way is by taxi. If you take a taxi from Haneda Airport to Tokyo Station, it will take under an hour for about ¥7,000

Once you get to Tokyo Station, you can take the subway or local trains to anywhere in Tokyo Prefecture or anywhere in Japan. At Tokyo Station, I recommend you get an IC card or chargeable fare card to make getting around in Japan easier for you. Once you buy an IC card (SUICA or PASSMO), then Google Maps can be used to help you plan your route to your accommodations. Also, if you have a JR Rail Pass, then it is even easier to get around Japan as you can ride on most major bullet trains, local trains, and even subways in Japan.

Remember that trains in Tokyo typically end around 12am, and the first train in the morning begins at 5am.

Tip

Use Hyperdia to plan your train travel times and find the best travel routes for your budget. The website is offered in English and allows you to customize not only your route, but also your departure and arrival times, what mode of transportation you would like to take (local, limited, etc.), and what kind of seat you would like to buy.

Visas

Visas can be super stressful for first-time travelers and those going to a particular country for the first time. After all, no one wants to be on the latest episode of Locked Up Abroad. If you are from the United States (U.S.), Canada, the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, New Zealand, and almost all European countries, then you do not have to apply for a visa. However, as you are entering the country as a non-visa-tourists, then you must leave Japan within the designated 90 days. You must also have proof of travel after Japan, meaning proof that you have plans to depart from Japan. For more information about visas, especially if you are not from the visa-free countries listed above, check out the visa information published by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Wi-Fi and Sim Cards

Don’t leave yourself on a virtual island for your first time in Tokyo! Japan may be known for its innovative technology, but WiFi is hard to come by without some kind of connection to one of the major networks: Softbank, Docomo, and AU. Tokyo has ample Wi-Fi all over the city, but unless you have portable Wi-Fi or a Japanese SIM card, you won’t be able to connect to any of them. You may be able to find a free network connection near convenience stores, but most Wi-Fi, especially on the local trains and in the subway, is carrier-locked. 

You can buy portable Wi-Fi and/or a Japanese SIM card online before you arrive in Japan, or when you arrive at any major airport in Japan in the arrivals lobby. Be sure to check back later for my breakdown of portable Wi-Fi and SIM card options in Japan!

Tip

There are a few free Wi-Fi hot-spots around the city, so be sure to check out the handy list published by the Japan Tourism Agency! If you open the webpage with your phone, it can use your GPS location to find Wi-Fi hot-spots near you.

Budgeting

Now that you’ve gotten yourself from the airport to your hotel or hostel, one of the most important parts of a trip, especially in a country notorious for its high cost, is money and budgeting. Depending on your budget, your experience in Japan for your first time may not change, but your creativity will. The first thing to remember when exploring Tokyo is that the more niche it is, the higher the cost. If you want the best ramen in the city, you’re going to see more than one yen sign, but if you are open to eating at ファミレス or “family restaurants,” at one of the many cute yet cheap cafes around Tokyo, or even at cheap kaitenzushi (回転寿司) or conveyor belt sushi restaurants, then you’re bound to save some money.

One of the cheapest ways to save, especially on food costs, is to eat at a convenience store. Ok, don’t click that red ‘x’ yet! Convenience stores in your home country may not be that great, but convenience stores in Japan are awesome! They not only have delicious snacks and drinks (though the tap water is safe to drink), but they also have great ready-made meals and hot foods like oden (hot-pot). The three biggest コンビニ (conbini) or convenience stores you’ll find in Tokyo are 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson. I personally like Lawson for its snacks and breads, and 7-Eleven for its read-made meal options, but all three have great food options and there’s one on almost every corner. Convenience stores will even heat up your packaged meal for you! When they ask, “温めますか” (atatamemasu ka), just say “はい” (yes)!

At about ¥1,000 per meal (or ¥500 if you eat at a convenience store), expect to spend 5,000 ($50 USD) a day on food and at least 2,000 ($20 USD) a day on transportation (unless you have the JR Pass) for one person. If you buy an IC Card, you will get a small discount on train and bus fare. That means your overall daily budget will be between 7,000 to 10,000 ($70 to $100 USD) a day, per person.

Exchange Rate (as of 12/2019):

¥108.74 for $1.00 USD

¥120.53 for 1 Euro

Reported by the Bank of Japan

Don’t know how to convert money?

If you’re converting to USD, it’s super easy! The last two numbers is the cent for USD. Here’s an example (at ¥100 for $1.00):

¥1,789 ¥1,7.89 $17.89 USD

If you’re converting to any other currency, divide the price by the current exchange rate. For example, the Canadian exchange rate is ¥82.46 for $1.00 CAD now:

¥1,789 / ¥82.46 $21.70 CAD

First Cabin Capsule Hotel on Booking.com

Accommodations

Japan is known for its cleanliness, so that extends to even the cheapest hotels and even hostels in the country. When I travel within Japan and outside of Japan, I strive for getting the best quality stay for a cheap budget. Luckily, in Japan and in Tokyo there are plenty of hotels, hostels, and AirBnBs that can offer both. Below are accommodation suggestions based on your budget and desired sleeping experience.

The budget hostels and hotels in particular are some of my favorites. I personally love Grids, Book & Bed, Bunka Hostel, the Monterey Business Hotel, and the Shimokitazawa AirBnB.

Booking.com

Tip

Tokyo is safe not only for solo travelers, but also for female solo travelers. Check out my friend’s article on solo female travel in Japan at Gaijinpot, a site dedicated to those who want to live and work in or travel to Japan.

Tips for Your First Time in Tokyo

1. No Shoes Inside

I’m sure many of you have heard this before, but when walking into a Japanese home, hotel or ryokan, or even a restaurant or business, you must take off your shoes. Wearing shoes inside is considered dirty and offensive if you make this faux paus. Not all places require this, so here’s a trick to see if shoes are a no-go: the genkan (玄関).

The genkan is a raised step that leads into the inside. If there is a genkan, then you must take off your shoes. If you see a shoe closet filled with shoes and there are slippers provided, then you must take off your shoes before entering. Most Japanese people typically wear shoes that are easy to take off and put on for this reason, so avoid unlacing and re-lacing those sneakers and wear shoes that are easy to slip off!

2. Don’t Tip

A great thing about Japan is that you don’t have to figure out tipping. That means, when you pay your bill, you don’t have to leave money behind for the waiter or waitress. In fact, if you do, this is considered rude. Japan pays its service workers very well, and a service charge is often included in the bill anyway.

If you want to show your appreciation for a great meal and service, just say “ごちそうさまでした” (gochisosama-deshita) as you walk out the door!

3. Slurping is Ok

Another way to show appreciation for a good meal is to slurp while you eat. Now, I don’t mean you should slurp your rice if you’re eating curry and rice. I mean, if you are eating a noodle dish like ramen, then you should slurp away! If you prefer to not make a sound, that is OK, too, but slurping noodles noisily is appreciated.

4. Keep to the Left

Japan has a specific flow to its walking traffic, and you’ll see this when you walk down the street. People are often walking almost orderly with a clear direction. For Tokyo and the Kanto region, everyone walks on the left.

This is especially important if you use public transportation like trains. When using stairs or escalators, stand on the left and walk up the right. Don’t be that person who blocks everyone during their busy day or busy work commute.

5. Don’t Eat or Talk on the Phone on the Train or Bus

While we’re on the subject of public transportation, here’s another great tip to keep you from being a loud and rude tourist. When you are on a train or bus in Japan, you shouldn’t eat or talk on the phone. There are Japanese people who do break this rule, and the younger generation typically doesn’t care either (I’ve even done it), but most people try not to. If you want to take a sip of your drink or chew some gum, that’s completely fine, but try not to have a full meal and cocktail.

You’re already at tip 6! If you’re reading this and thinking, man, there are a lot of rules, then you’re right! But, Japan is kept largely clean and orderly because of them.

6. Don’t Eat and Walk

If you find yourself out and about with a rumbly tummy, don’t get that Tuna Mayonnaise Onigiri and eat it as you walk, do as the French–or should I say, Japanese–do and take a rest to savor your food. While it’s perfectly normal to stand outside a fast-food restaurant or convenience store to eat, or find yourself a bench on the street to sit and eat, people usually don’t eat and walk. The only exception is ice cream. If you’re eating ice cream, feel free to walk a whole marathon as you eat!

7. Keep Your Trash and Sort it

Another reason why Japanese people typically don’t eat while they walk is because there are no trash cans! There have been many times where I bought a beef croquette (ぎゅうクロケット) or some tapioca (bubble tea) and realized there wasn’t a trash can in sight. If you do find yourself with trash and no where to throw it away, you’ll have to hold it until you get back to your hotel or until you find a public trash can (like at a convenience store).

And, this brings me to my most frustrating point while living in Japan: sorting trash. Before you just throw that wrapper into any bin, think to yourself, is this plastic or is this paper? Is it clean or is it dirty? Japan’s trash sorting system is super strict, and if you’re a resident throwing away trash incorrectly, you might just find your trash on your door step! Luckily, as a visitor, there should be many signs at restaurants and convenience stores labeled in English telling you how to throw your trash away correctly.

Just in case, though: 燃えるゴミ (moeru-gomi) means burnable trash and this usually includes paper, raw garbage like food, clothing, etc. Basically, anything that you would normally burn in a bonfire. 燃えないゴミ(moenai-gomi) means non-burnable trash, and this is metals or plastics that don’t have the special recyclable mark. Lastly, there is プラ (pura) or plastic recycling. Remember to clean out your plastic containers and waste before putting it in the recycle bin. If you’re a pro, you will recycle your plastic bottle with the pura bottles, and recycle the plastic wrapper and cap with the normal recyclables.

8. Restrooms are Hard to Find

It’s unfortunate, but if you’re in the city, it can be really hard to find a public bathroom. Maybe this is an obvious fact for city people, but as a suburban girl that drinks just a little too much water, this was especially hard for me.

Where I live now in the countryside, it’s easy to find a bathroom at any convenience store, but in Tokyo, most convenience stores do not have bathrooms. If you’re someone who needs to use the bathroom often, the best place to look for a quick bathroom break is in train stations and, of course, at any restaurants or stores you go to. You might even find that magical コンビニ (konbini) that has a bathroom.

9. Conquer the Squat Toilet

Have you ever heard of the squat toilet? While Japan’s big cities are highly advanced and your not as likely to find it in a big city like Tokyo, you may be confronted with the dreaded squat toilet at least once in your travels. What is this infamous “squat toilet” you may ask. 

The squat toilet is essentially a whole in the ground with a porcelain back-splash, and you squat instead of sitting to use it. There’s often a whole technique on how you conquer the situation if confronted with it, but I’ll let you in on how I use it. While many of my friends like to take off their whole pants to use it, I just carefully pull my pants–and pants–behind me (or in front of me depending on what I’m doing) and aim carefully. You should leave the experience fairly clean with completely dry pants. Most bathrooms have at least one “western” toilet (a toilet you can actually sit on), so you may just have to wait in line for that one.

10. Cash, Cash, Cash

Japan is a very cash-based country, meaning that most people carrying a lot of money with them and not so many credit cards. Big cities like Tokyo has worked to accommodate those who use credit cards, but many places still only take cash. Typically, convenience stores, chain restaurants, hotels and hostels, department and chain clothing stores, and trendy cafes take credit card while mom-and-pop restaurants and cheap places like Daiso usually don’t. 

If you find yourself without cash, you can pay with an IC card (if you have one), or you can find your nearest 7-Eleven or JP Post ATM to withdraw cash. Other convenience stores do have ATMs, but I have found that 7-Eleven allows me to take out cash from American bank account without fail. Just be sure to take out bigger amounts to avoid costly fees.

11. Public Drinking is OK

If you find yourself out and about around Tokyo at night during the weekend, you may notice that many people are drinking along the street or just plain drunk. That’s right, in Japan you can drink in public, be drunk in public, and even sleep off your hangover in public. On the weekends, you’ll often see company workers out with each other going to and from drinking parties, and if you’re out around the time of the last train, you’ll even see people sleeping on the sidewalks, in the train station, on the platform, or even on the train.

12. No (Visible) Tattoos at the Onsen

Even though Japan is a modern city, there is still a huge stigma against tattoos because of its association with the Yakuza or Japanese gangs. For that reason, most public baths (銭湯, sentō) and hot springs (温泉, onsen) don’t allow people with tattoos to enter the baths. If they see you in the bath with visible tattoos, you will be kicked out and banned from the onsen. So, if you have tattoos, then be sure to cover them with large water-proof bandages and put the bandages on before you take off your clothes and enter the bath.

13. Dress Your Best

When you come to Japan, you’ll notice that everyone dresses very nice. Clothes are usually matched well and everyone is put together. I advice to dress in a way that makes you comfortable, but if you want to look a little snazzy while you’re in Japan, then it wouldn’t be weird at all.

14. Smoking is Allowed Inside

Unlike in other countries, smoking is still allowed indoors. You will notice this especially if you visit an izakaya (居酒屋) or bar, or even a chain restaurant. Luckily, there are separate smoking rooms and areas at restaurants and train stations. If you are allergic to smoke, or have asthma, be sure to say that you don’t smoke and you are allergic: “吸わないです。 煙アレルギーがあります” (Suwanaidesu. Kemuri arerugi ga arimasu.). If you do smoke, then you can use the smoking rooms instead of going outside.

15. Learn a Little Japanese

Japanese is hard! With three different writing systems and over 2,000 characters, fluent Japanese can’t be learned in less than a year by even the most diligent student. The good news is that you can learn the two basic writing systems, hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) within a week or two before your trip. Once you can read these two writing systems, it will be easier to read food labels, directions, and even place names. The average Japanese person in Tokyo can speak basic English (English is an official required subject for all Japanese students), but it’s always nice to know just a few words in the language of whatever country you’re visiting just in case English (or your native tongue) is not an option. Below are some simple phrases to help you get started.

Good Morning: おはようございます (Ohayo gozaimasu)

Good Evening: こんばんは (Konban wa)

Good Night: おやすみなさい (Oyasumi nasai)

Yes: はい (Hai)

No: いいえ (Iie)

Excuse Me: すみません (Sumimasen)

~, please. / Can I have~?: 〜おねがいします。(Onegaishimasu) / 〜ください。(Kudasai)

Can you speak English?: えいごをはなせますか。(Eigo Wo Hanasemasuka)

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10 First-Timer Things You Must Do

There’s an extensive array of things you can do in Tokyo alone, but if you’re a first-timer to Tokyo, here are some of the things you MUST do. All of the suggestions below are Tokyo-specific and/or are best done in Japan’s mega-capital.

“Kura” by Bing through Creative Commons

1. Eat Tokyo’s Specialty: Monjayaki

You may know okonomiyaki, but do you know monjayaki?

Similar to its Osaka cousin, monjayaki  (もんじゃ焼き) or monja (もんじゃ) is a dish with batter, vegetables (i.e., cabbage, carrots), and any other fixings you’d like (i.e., noodles, cheese, meats) that is cooked on a flat grill or teppan-yaki. It’s a must for your first time in Tokyo. Monjayaki looks a little gross when you begin cooking it, but once the ingredients have caramelized and melded together, it turns into a delicious medley of warmth that is hard to find outside of Japan! It might even be considered an umami flavor. 

Although it is not as well known as okonomiyaki, there is a whole street dedicated to monjayaki: Tsukushima Street near Asakusa and Tokyo Outer Fish Market. I recommend you visit one of the two famous monjayaki restaurants on Tsukushima Street: Kura or Iroha Honten. Both restaurants have a long history of making and serving monjayaki, so there is often a line outside the door. If you want to avoid lines, go there a little after lunch and eat before the dinner rush.

Instead of cutting the completed mound of steaming-hot goo into four pieces to eat it with chopsticks like you would okonomiyaki, you slowly scoop up bites of the savory treat and eat it with the mini metal spatulas provided.

Like, okonomiyaki, monjayaki takes a little know-how and skill to make it. If you want to challenge yourself, make mojayaki for yourself by first mixing up the ingredients given to you in a metal bowl, spreading them out on the grill, creating an opening or circle in the middle to pour the liquidy batter, and letting it sit and sizzle to caramelize and cook. 

If you can make monjayaki like a local, be sure to tag me (@awayfromorigin) in your pictures on Instagram to show me your work! 

Tip

For a special dessert treat after all that monja, stop by Tsukishima Kyuei Melon Pan for the famous Japanese melon bread (メロンパン). It gets its name from its shape because it’s shaped like a melon! This bakery specializes in your standard sweet melon bread, but some bakeries even give the bread a melon taste.

2. Become an Oktaku in Akihabara

Even if you don’t watch anime (Japanese animation) or read manga (Japanese comic books), you must go to Akihabara (秋葉原) during your first time in Tokyo. The mega-watt lights, maid cafes, and crazy crane machines are all staples in Akihabara. For those who do watch anime and read comic books, Akihabara is the best place to stock up on old and new anime DvDs, soundtracks, comic books, and merchandise–especially figurines. For those who aren’t otaku, anime and manga nerds, then you can try your luck at a crane game, take fun Purikura, and try out a themed cafe or maid cafe–or both!

3. Climb Tokyo Tower (No, I mean it!)

If you’re coming to Tokyo for the first time, then you must visit Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower, previously the tallest tower in Japan (now it’s Tokyo SkyTree), is the icon of Tokyo. You can see it in every skyline shot of the city, and in every Japanese drama set in Tokyo. It’s the perfect spot in the daytime for singles and families, or the perfect romantic setting at night for couples. Other than the philanthropic charities set around the iconic reddish-orange tower such as the annual TELL Tower Climb, there are often themed anime or game months such as One Piece and Final Fantasy special exhibits. 

During the prime tourist season, there is usually a long line outside the tower and around the corner, but during the off-seasons there is almost no lines. The Tower is open from 9am to 11pm with last entry at 10:15, and although the night view is gorgeous, if you want to skip the lines, then you should go in the daytime, especially before lunch time. There are two decks that you can buy tickets for: the main deck and the top deck. It costs ¥1,200 for an adult ticket to the main deck and ¥3,000 for an adult ticket to both the main and top deck. You can buy the tickets online for a ¥200 discount, or at the tower itself. 

Another great feature of Tokyo Tower is its nightly light-ups. Currently, Tokyo Tower has four different light-up settings: the “winter version,” the “summer version,” the “Diamond Veil” for the new Reiwa imperial era, and a “Kirameki” sparkle light-up with a “Midnight Pattern” after 12am. Check out these light-ups at night from 8pm to a little after 12am. For an extra challenge, try climbing Tokyo Tower to the main deck. The stairs are only open from 11am to 4pm on weekends and holidays but can be closed if the weather isn’t suitable.

4. Get Artsy at TeamLab in Odaiba

If you’ve seen teamLab all over Instagram, then you know you must visit this place when you come to Tokyo for the first time. The huge art exhibit and light show made its debut in 2018 in Odaiba, an artificial Island known for its larger-than-life Gundam statue and ferris wheel. The exhibit has been around for a few years now, but the lines are always out of the building and the tickets sell out fast.

There are two teamLab exhibits, teamLab Borderless in the Mori Building’s Digital Art Museum and teamLab Planets in Toyosu. While both exhibits are beautiful, the most famous teamLab exhibit is the Borderless exhibit. To buy tickets to teamLab Borderless, it’s best to buy tickets online in advance as tickets often sell out in advance. Once you’ve bought your ticket, you will get a digital copy in your email. Show that email to the staff on the day of and you’re in! 

To get to the exhibit, take the nearest train to Aomi Station in Odaiba. The exhibit is open from 10am to 9pm, but the best time to get there for less crowds and less of a wait is in the morning when it opens or in the evening before the exhibit closes. 

Although teamLab Borderless is a permanent exhibit, teamLab Planets will end in Fall 2020.

Takeshita Street in Harajuku, Tokyo, Japan

5. Visit Kawaii Harajuku

Harajuku–and more importantly, Takeshita-dori (竹下通) is on everyone’s itinerary when they come to Tokyo for the first time. Known for its かわいい (kawaii) or ‘cute’ fashion and stores, Harajuku is popular among trendy youngsters in Japan. Not only does Takeshita Street have cute fashion, there’s tons of cute food stores and cafes as well. I’ll be releasing a guide to Tokyo’s cafes and trendy foods, but I’ll let you in early on my personal sweet favorites: The Zoo (Dobutsuen), Totti Candy Factory, and Cookie Time.

Because it’s so famous, it’s crazy crowded almost every day, no matter the season, but if you want to see Takeshita Street with minimal crowds, then you should go to Harajuku and Takeshita Street during Japan off-season and earlier in the day on weekdays. This way, you can avoid the local crowd and the tourist crowd.

6. Enjoy Japanese School Lunch at 6年4組

Unless you have Japanese heritage or went to a Japanese school, you probably haven’t eaten a typical Japanese school lunch. Japanese school lunch, based on Japan’s washoku (和食) culture, usually has a balance of rice and vegetables with minimal meat. As someone who has eaten a lot of school lunch as an English Teacher in Japan, I find school lunch a little heavy on the rice, but filled with unique and delicious vegetables. 

If it’s your first time in Tokyo and your first time in Japan, you should definitely try Japanese school lunch and, even better, enjoy it as if you’re going to a Japanese elementary school! 個室居酒屋 6年4組 (Roku-nen yon-gumi) is a themed izakaya/bar known for its Japanese elementary school decoration and Japanese 給食 (kyushoku) or school lunch menu. Although the menu is not exactly like a typical Japanese school lunch, it does offer fan favorites like age-pan (揚げパン), fried bread with a dusting of soybean powder (きな粉) or cocoa powder, and soft-men (ソフト麺), soft flour noodles usually in a meat sauce. 

6年4組’s Shinjuku location is open from 5pm to 11:30pm and you can even reserve a spot at the izakaya online.

Tip

If you’re vegetarian, vegan or just want more non-meat options and you’re visiting Tokyo, then you’re in luck! There are many cafes and restaurants to eat at that offer healthy options for any diet. The best way to find all the vegan and vegetarian cafes and restaurants in Tokyo is to check out Happy Cow. Happy Cow is a website and database that tells you all the vegan and vegetarian options in a city of your choosing.

7. Scramble Across Shibuya

If Tokyo Tower is the icon of Tokyo, Shibuya Scramble Crossing is a symbol of life in Tokyo–everyone scrambling in every direction to where they need to be. Walking with the crowd across this busy street in Shibuya will be a disorienting yet exhilarating experience for your first time in Tokyo. You may even see people standing right in the middle of the flow of traffic to take pictures at the famous crosswalk. 

For a great bird’s-eye view of Shibuya Crossing, there are two places you can go. The first viewpoint is from the window seats of the Shibuya Starbucks in the Tsutaya and Tower Records building. It’s usually quite crowded on the weekends with the window seating being the first to go. If you want to avoid big crowds at this location, you should go on a weekday before lunchtime. 

The second place you can go for a great view of Shibuya Crossing is Shibuya Sky. Shibuya Sky is a 360 degree observation deck on the roof of Shibuya Scramble Square, a restaurant, shop and office building. Not only can you get a great panoramic view of Shibuya, but the rooftop also has relaxation space with hammocks and a light show called “Crossing Light” at night.

8. Watch a Sumo Match

For your first time in Tokyo, you can’t miss out on seeing a sumō match! You can watch sumō (相撲), Japanese traditional wrestling, in four cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, but while you’re in Tokyo, why not see a match?

Sumō tournaments occur six times a year at official sumō halls from January until November, with the tournament locations changing every month. Although you can check the official sumō schedule in English at the Sumō Association’s official website, sumō matches in Tokyo are in January, May and September at the Kokugikan (国技館). Advanced tickets are usually sold a month before, and can be ordered online, but they sell out fast! If you don’t get an advance ticket, get to the sumo hall early so you can stand in line from around 5am and wait for first-come-first-serve tickets. If you can understand Japanese, you can also buy tickets at any chain convenience store in Japan. 

The cheaper seats, arena-style chair seats, are a little further away from the ring and come in A, B and C options while small 4-person box seats are reserved and are behind the ringside floor seats, so they are the most expensive. Arena seats are between ¥3,800 and ¥10,000 (C-A), and Japanese-style box seats (you sit cross-legged or seiza style) are ¥38,000, but prices vary depending on the location of the tournament and the grade of the seat. If you’d rather stick to a budget, then the arena B or even C seats are perfect as long as you get there early to pick your seat. What about ringside seats, you ask? Unfortunately, ringside floor seats are typically not available for purchase by the public.

The best day to check out a sumō match is during the week and with tickets bought in advance. At the tournament, locals usually skip the matches by the lesser famous and young sumō wrestlers and come for the headliner matches, so if you grab some arena seats during the opening matches, you should be able to get a seat with a pretty good view.

Does your trip not match up with any sumō tournament dates? You can watch sumō wrestlers train in Tokyo during their early morning training at their sumōbeya (相撲部屋) or you can visit one of the many sumō exhibits that are held in between match dates.

Tip

If you can’t buy tickets through the official website in advance, you can try resellers like BuySumoTickets or Voyagin.

Senso-ji Market Street, Tokyo, Japan

9. Find Your Luck at Senso-ji

Sensō-ji Temple (浅草寺)is one of Tokyo’s most famous temples, and a great place to not only experience Japanese culture, but also buy cheap souvenirs for your first time in Tokyo. The temple is most famous for its two large gates, Kaminarimon in the front and Hozomon in the back, that have lanterns with designs of gods (wind and thunder and lightning) painted on them to protect the temple from bad energy. For you history buffs out there, Sensō-ji was also the family temple of the famous shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It protected Edo in the 1600s from invaders in the Northeast while Zōzō-ji Temple (増上寺) near Tokyo Tower stood guard in the southwest. 

Once past Kaminarimon Gate, you are in Nakamise-dōri (中店道), a street lined with shops full of Japanese food and souvenirs. You can spend a considerable amount of time just walking down this street, but keep pushing forward to reach Hozomon Gate. After you’ve passed Hozomon Gate, you are at the actual temple. There, you can see the inside of the temple from the entryway, pray, light incense, and get fortunes. 

To avoid large tourist crowds, go to Sensō-ji during the weekday at or a little after opening. The temple is free and the main hall is open from 6am to 5pm daily. Shops along Nakamise Street close at night, but you can still visit the temple after closing. The temple is lit-up from sunset to 11pm, so it’s a great chance for nighttime photography and crowd-less shots.

Tip

When praying at any temple or shrine in Japan, the best coin to use for a prayer offering is a ¥5 coin. The hole in the middle allows for good fortune to pass through. On the other hand, offering one ¥10 coin may bring you bad luck (so offer two ¥10 coins if you don’t have a ¥5 coin!). 

Also, Zōzō-ji Temple is famous for its row of stone Jizo statues that represent the souls of children who passed away before birth. The statues are placed there by parents to help their unborn child’s passage to the afterlife.

10. Walk Across the Rainbow Bridge

If you’ve watched a Japanese drama (or maybe even a Japanese music video) or came from Narita Airport, you may have seen (or ridden across) the Rainbow Bridge. It’s a long bridge that connects Tokyo Prefecture to Chiba Prefecture by car, railway and foot. For your first time in Tokyo, try getting your lungs pumping while walking across Rainbow Bridge on the “Rainbow Promenade.” It takes about 25 minutes and it’s free!

There are two ways to cross the bridge, the north route and the south route. The north route gives you a great view of Tokyo Tower and Roppongi’s skyscrapers while the south route gives you a view of Odaiba, Tokyo’s man-made island, and the Shinagawa area. The bridge is open from 9am to 9pm in the summer and 10am to 6pm in the winter, and the best time to cross the bridge is before sunset on the south route and after sunset on the north route for great after-sunset city shots. 

To get to the visitor center of Rainbow Bridge, take a train to Shibaura-futō Station on the Yurikamome Line and take an elevator up from Shibaura Pier.

That wraps up this monster guide for first-timer’s to Tokyo. If you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave them down below in the comments!

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24 thoughts on “First-Timer’s Guide to Tokyo, Japan”

  1. I have been to Tokyo many times for business trips and always had colleagues who I was friends with as a guide so I got lucky on my first few trips. I love Japan and Tokyo is absolutely amazing – your guide is awesome and good for anyone going for the first time!

    1. Katy, Japan can be quite overwhelming if you go without a plan and/or can’t speak the language, so it’s good to have some kind of idea!

  2. I love Tokyo and Japan. You did a great and thorough job of explaining Tokyo and all it has to offer! Thank you for all the details.

  3. I’d love to visit Japan. It’s high on my list. I love Asia and there seems so much to do in Japan and from the looks of it Tokyo seems like a great place to start

    1. Emma, Tokyo is a great and convenient place to start traveling in Japan! From Tokyo Station alone, there’s so many trains and buses that you can take to travel to other popular prefectures and tourist destinations.

  4. Super informative guide! I would love to visit Japan as soon as I am able to. Bookmarking this guide for later!

  5. I have never been to Tokyo and it is sooo high on my list! This guide will definitely come handy super soon (at least I hope), thanks for sharing it 😀

    1. Léa, Tokyo is definitely a must-see when traveling to and in Japan. It’s got its own city flair that is different from Japan’s other major cities. This guide will be right here when it’s safe to travel again! 🙂

    1. Thank you, Amber! My style has evolved over the years, but I’m glad that you are liking its current state. Japan brings out the photographer in everyone, though, so don’t give up hope!

  6. This is such a helpful guide to Japan for first-timers! Really interesting tips about the tattoos and shoes too.

    1. Francesca, thank you for checking out the guide! The shoe and tattoos rules stem directly from traditional customs and thinking years ago. Maybe tattoo rules will be more relaxes as times goes by, but I think the shoe customs are here to stay. 😀

  7. What an excellent detailed post on visiting Japan. We are still yet to visit from BC Canada. It is definitely on our “Must Travel To Next List.” Have Pinned your post for future reference. Thanks 🙂

    1. Robert, thank you for checking out the post! I hope you can eventually make your way over and enjoy all that Tokyo (and Japan) has to offer!

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